Transparency News, 9/9/21


September 9, 2021
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state & local news stories
The city of Charlottesville did not violate the law when it held an impromptu meeting and voted to remove a controversial statue but did violate the Freedom of Information Act when it neglected to timely respond to a request from a political candidate, ruled a judge Wednesday. Philip Hamilton, a Republican candidate seeking Virginia’s 57th House of Delegates seat, filed the petition last month, arguing that the city and City Council violated FOIA law by giving less than five hours’ notice of a hearing in which they voted to remove a controversial statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea. Hamilton also argued the city violated FOIA law by not providing documents he requested in a July 17 email to the City Councilors and staff. The special meeting was called on July 10, the same day two downtown Confederate statues were removed. At the time, City Manager Chip Boyles said the meeting was called because the removal of the Confederate statues went so smoothly and quickly that the crew would be able to remove the Lewis-Clark-Sacagawea statue as well with no additional funding required. In spite of the brief 20-minute notice given for the meeting, various members of the public were able to give input prior the Council’s vote.
The Daily Progress

Schools and courts were the focus of attention on the second day of oral presentations on Martinsville's reversion, but all members of the Martinsville School Board and Superintendent Zeb Talley noticeably were absent while their futures were being discussed.  Henry County Commonwealth's Attorney Andrew Nester described the combining of courts as required by reversion as having no simple path toward a solution. Near the end of Nester's testimony Martinsville Assistant City Manager and City Attorney Eric Monday informed the commission members that Judge G. Carter Greer would be scheduling all Martinsville court cases in Henry County courts with dates on or after Feb. 1. Nester told the members he was unaware of Greer's plans, and the news came to him as a surprise. A break for lunch was called, and when the presentation resumed, Henry County Attorney George Lyle called Nester back to the witness stand and asked him to explain to the commission what had happened during lunch.  "I talked to [Circuit Court] Judge David Williams in his chambers, and he said he was unaware of any plans to hold city cases in Henry County courts, and then I talked with Judge Greer on the phone, and he said there were no plans to schedule city trials in the county beginning in February," Nester said. Monday was not asked to explain why he misinformed the commission on this matter and volunteered no clarification.
Martinsville Bulletin

The Harrisonburg School Board meeting was packed Tuesday night with parents and staff who had concerns with recent policies and COVID-19 protocols, but before public comment began the school board discussed recent staff resignations. During the meeting, School Board member Obbie Hill called the nine resignations alarming for the start of the school year. In a statement to WHSV, Dr. Michael Richards says Virginia law prohibits him from discussing publicly the reasons why an employee chooses to resign but that it did not have to do with the vaccination protocol. The School Board eventually moved the details of the resignation to be discussed during a closed session later this month.
(NOTE: FOIA does not prohibit discussion in an open meeting.)
stories from around the country
The National Freedom of Information Coalition and 75 other organizations signed a letter urging Chief Justice Roberts and the Supreme Court to permanently provide live audio access to oral arguments. 
The highest teleconference in the land is soon coming to an end. After more than a year of conducting arguments remotely, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will resume in-person oral arguments this fall, beginning with the slate of cases to be heard in October, November and December. In a statement released Wednesday, the court, which has conducted remote arguments since May 2020 because of the pandemic, said that courtroom access will be limited to "justices, essential court personnel, counsel in the scheduled cases, and journalists with full-time credentials issued by the court." The court will not be open to the public – as it typically has been during in-person arguments — "out of concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees," the statement said. But the court also announced it plans to offer a live audio feed of the arguments for those three months. It will be the first time the court is providing real-time audio for in-person hearings.
The National Freedom of Information Coalition and 75 other organizations signed a letter urging Chief Justice Roberts and the Supreme Court to permanently provide live audio access to oral arguments. “Providing live audio access to cases during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has convincingly demonstrated the public’s appetite to observe the operations of the Court,” reads the letter, authored by the Project on Government Oversight. “It has also shown that the Court can balance increased public access with the integrity of its proceedings. Equitable access to the Court as an institution is imperative for all Americans.” 

A recent city council meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was derailed after an unmasked man refused to leave and was removed by police. James Smith, 40, was arrested Tuesday evening on a charge of criminal trespassing, KNWA reported. Smith, a Prairie Grove resident, was repeatedly told to put on a mask if he wanted to remain at the meeting, but declined to do so. Police Chief Mike Reynolds told Smith to leave, KFSM reported. “Then arrest me,” Smith told Reynolds. “I’m not going to arrest you,” Reynolds said. “I’m not leaving unless you enforce your ordinance,” Smith said. Police led Smith out of city hall in handcuffs and he was booked into the Washington County Detention Center, KNWA reported.